Seems like the folkloric tradition of every culture on our planet has its Trickster figure: the clever commoner who manages to dupe and elude the rich and powerful purely by the use of his or her quick wits and powers of persuasion. In medieval Western Europe, that character was the very incarnation of slyness, Reynard the Fox. By the time his adventures appeared extensively in print in Pierre de Saint-Cloud’s Le Roman de Renart in 1170, the wily one’s reputation was already long-established in the oral tradition in France, Germany and the Low Countries.
Reynard, his nemesis Isegrim the Wolf and other stock characters of medieval beast fables – often thinly disguised satires poking fun at the aristocracy and the clergy – have been popping up in popular culture ever since, from Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale to the current SyFy cable TV series The Magicians. The reference to Tybalt as the “King of Cats” in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet derives from these timeless stories. If someone says that you’re “crazy like a fox,” consider yourself complimented: Old Reynard’s unconventional strategies extricated him from many a sticky situation.
Performance artist Hélène Lesterlin has been so utterly captivated by the conniving antihero for so long that she named her Saugerties base of operations Studio Reynard. For the past four years, in collaboration with Anastacia Bolina and singer/songwriter Laura Brenneman, she has been developing a multimedia theatrical extravaganza based on the beast-fable tradition titled Fox vs. Kingdom. By turns a raucous entertainment, gorgeous shadow play and masked dance, this dark comedy is told by three troubadours in a medieval tavern, featuring original songs and more than three dozen puppets. Told in English/French/Latin/gibberish, the story exposes themes of entrenched power structures, hypocrisy and corruption, the advent of law, the slick rebuttal and the hunger that drives us to break codes of conduct.
The spectacle was developed in workshops at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and components of the work-in-progress have already been presented at several Hudson Valley venues. Now, at long last, Fox vs. Kingdom is ready to roll out in its entirety. It premieres at the Byrdcliffe Theater October 28 through 30, with performances at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and at 7 p.m. on Sunday. Chef/sculptor Mor Pipman will serve special snacks and herbal elixirs to complement the “Café Isegrim” tavern setting. “The audience is encouraged to don Halloween costumes with a beastly medieval theme – think ‘wild boar with a cutlass,’” says the Lesterlin.
Tickets for Fox vs. Kingdom cost $40, $25 and $20 and may be purchased online at https://studio-reynard.com. The Byrdcliffe Theater is located at 380 Upper Byrdcliffe Road in Woodstock. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.